Exchange on Corporal Griffin Workers Vanguard

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July 5, 1984
Workers Vanguard

Dear Comrades:

It’s a funny thing about bad political positions–sometimes they just won’t go away. In this connection, we found your article on the case of U.S. Marine Corporal Alfred Griffin (Workers Vanguard No. 355, 25 May) of interest. The vindictive punishment of this man by the imperialist military is an outrage. But so is your attempt in the article to link your own cowardly call for saving the survivors of the demolition of the Marine barracks in Beirut with his refusal “to go to Lebanon.. .to kill fellow Muslims.”

Quite a few of the Marines who went to Lebanon to kill Muslims didn’t come back. That sometimes happens to those who sign up to fight the dirty colonial wars of imperialism. We don’t think it’s such a bad thing either–apparently you do. We don’t care how many Marines walked out of Beirut and how many were taken out in coffins. All we care about is that they left. You wanted them all out alive. So we have a difference. While you were cringing in anticipation of what the Reagan administration might do to anyone who made unpatriotic noises in the wake of the decade’s biggest military setback for U.S. imperialism, we observed that those who lived like pigs frequently end up dying like pigs. Our slogan may have been too angular for you–but it was not bloodthirsty. (It wasn’t original either–as you are well aware.) It is simply an objective encapsulation of the risks run by colonial gendarmes. Corporal Griffin may very well have saved his own life by refusing to go to Lebanon and kill Muslims.

At your educational in Chicago on 5 May, SL Central Committee member Seymour took your revisionism one step further and asserted that the Marines were “no better and no worse” than any of the various communal militias in Lebanon. Coming from the leading theoretician of the tendency this repudiation of the Leninist position on imperialist intervention in “third world” countries is shocking. Presumably Seymour thinks that calling for saving the Marines makes more sense if the issue of imperialism is downplayed. So he blithely announced that the militias of the squabbling semi-colonial peoples of Lebanon are equivalent to the military SWAT team of the world’s most dangerous imperialist power.

What’s next? Will WV begin to worry about the safety of all the poor economic draftees in the British army of occupation in Northern Ireland? Perhaps Seymour thinks that the British Army is “no better and no worse” than the IRA and the UDA. Will we soon see a call for “British Troops Out of Ireland, Now, Alive!” in WV? Somehow we doubt it–after all, they’re not Americans.

It was remarkable that while joining the Democratic Party chorus calling for getting the Marines out alive, WV never once advocated saving the French paratroopers. Why not? They too had their ranks thinned by a Shi’ite truck bomb. We suspect that their nationality was a factor. Social-patriotism begins (and ends) at home.

Corporal Griffin is indeed a man of principle. We applaud his refusal to “live like a pig.” But your cowardly flinch (based on the calculation that it is more important to safeguard your “good name” with your own ruling class than your claim to the revolutionary tradition of Bolshevism) is a shameful blot on the record of the international Spartacist tendency. It is reminiscent of Farrell Dobbs’ craven expression of remorse over the assassination of imperialist chieftain J.F. Kennedy.

Bolshevik greetings,
External Tendency of the iSt

SL Reply

The self-styled External Tendency (ET) has again displayed its dismissive and contemptuous attitude toward black oppression. Not once in their letter do they mention that Alfred Griffin is a black man in a white-ruled racist society–as if this isn’t important!–and they disappear the fact that he refused to fight in black Grenada. This Marine corporal’s refusal to fight in Grenada and Lebanon personifies a fundamental problem for American imperialism, namely, that a large fraction of its combat forces consist of black men who are deeply alienated from the white ruling class and less susceptible than whites to anti-communist and anti-Soviet prejudices.

Imperialist armies consist of young workingmen sent off to die for the interests of their rulers. Thus every capitalist armed force shows potential contradiction–it can be polarized along class lines between the officer corps and the ranks. This potential is particularly explosive in the dirty, unpopular, no-win colonial wars of decaying imperialism, and in the case of the present U.S. military is exacerbated by the high proportion of black soldiers.

As a Spartacist spokesman put it to the ETs at the Chicago educational referred to in the present ET letter:

“ of the most objectively racist speeches I’ve heard by someone who claims to sympathize with us. Do you think that the fact that a disproportionate number of combat troops of U.S. imperialism are black and Hispanic doesn’t matter? This is a social fact of potentially enormous historic importance. Why do these blacks join the Marines? Join the army? Because they want to kill in the service of Ronald Reagan? Is that what you think? No! You have no sense of the desperation of black people in this country. You’re contemptuous of them. Because the army is the only place they can get three square meals a day, and they get a warm place to sleep and learn a job skill. That’s why they’re in there. They’re the most alienated, they’re the people who are least anti-Soviet. So what happens? Reagan sends them over to Lebanon and they get killed. Every interview [in Lebanon] and the interviews in Camp Lejeune say, ‘this guy [Reagan] is getting us killed, we want out!’ That’s the stuff of which mutinies are made. Of course, Nicaragua’s different. They go in, we want them to be defeated. Insofar as they have to take casualties, we want the Marines to take casualties. But that’s not just our program. A revolutionary government in Nicaragua would also appeal to these black soldiers, would try to fraternize with them, would try to win over the prisoners of war. [It] would say, look, you are fighting for an unjust cause. That’s the stuff that revolution in this country is made of, and you have no sense of that whatsoever.”

The Lebanon disaster is universally recognized as Reagan’s biggest foreign policy defeat so far. Central to our position on the Lebanese conflict encapsulated in the slogan, “Marines Out of Lebanon, Now, Alive!” is that none of the myriad factions were fighting for a just cause. All sides are squalid and no side is fighting imperialism. The ET implicitly supported the Shi’ite/Druze/Syrian forces. They do this dishonestly, through the false analogy with Northern Ireland, an analogy they have used repeatedly. In Northern Ireland British troops are the state power upholding the Protestant-supremacist (Orange) government which oppresses the Irish Catholic minority. In making the analogy of Lebanon (before the Marines were withdrawn last February) and Northern Ireland the ET is implying that the Shi’ite/Druze/Syrian side was waging not only a war of national liberation against U.S. imperialism but also a just struggle against a reactionary government. This is a cynical effort to prettify the Lebanese reality as do the Stalinists, SWP, Mandelites, Marcyites and revisionist left in general.

The analogy between Lebanon and Northern Ireland is wrong–indeed, absurd at both levels. To begin with, the Marines constituted a token military force, which, moreover, hid in their bunkers during most of the fighting. As former Israeli chief of staff Mordechai Gur explained a few months before Reagan ignominiously pulled the Marines out:

“...the U.S. hope for establishing a strong central government in Lebanon is unrealistic. No foreign military intervention can accomplish that–certainly not the U.S. Marines, whose force is so small that nobody takes it seriously.”
Newsweek, 19 December 1983

Secondly, the Maronite-dominated Gemayel “government” did not oppress the Lebanese Muslim population for the simple reason that it did not govern them. Apart from the Israeli-occupied south, the effective public force in the Muslim communities since last September has consisted of fellow Muslims (Shi’ite Amal militia in West Beirut, Druze militia in the Shuf Mountains, Syrian army in eastern and much of northern Lebanon). In recent months much of the fighting in Lebanon has been among the various Muslim communalist forces.

The present fighting in Lebanon is essentially a continuation of the communalist bloodletting which broke out in the 1975-76 civil war. The presence of a few thousand U.S. Marines guarding Beirut Airport did not change the character of the conflict. The ET sometimes likes to posture that it is upholding the old Spartacist positions against alleged revision by the SL leadership. However, it is the ET’s line on Lebanon which in substance repudiates our position on the 1975-76 Lebanese civil war, which was then and remains a touchstone of our opposition to the Stalinists, nationalists and New Leftists who applaud the empty “anti-imperialist” posturing of oppressive, pro-imperialist Third World factions and regimes.

When we raised the slogan “Marines Out of Lebanon, Now, Alive!” it was coupled with the slogan, “U.S. Out of Grenada, Dead or Alive!” This fact–which simply refutes the ET’s contention that we seek to make ourselves palatable to social-patriots–illuminates our Marxist opposition to the vicarious bloodthirsty ET posture on the Marines: “live like pigs, die like pigs.” Over Grenada, where unlike Lebanon there was a just cause at stake–the defense of the rights of the people of Grenada against the imperialist, racist U.S. invasion–our distaste for violence and loss of life is subordinated to our support for the victory of the just cause, by whatever means are necessary, against the violence of the oppressors. But even here, we unlike the ET do not claim to enjoy the fact that sons of the working class–black and white, American and French and what have you–must die for the crimes of their rulers.

Workers Vanguard No. 360, 3 August 1984 (emphasis in original)

ET Rejoinder

September 21, 1984
Spartacist League


It is unfortunate that , a paper which once had a reputation even among its political opponents for scrupulousness and integrity, cannot address a polemic to the External Tendency without resorting to smears and slanders.

Your response to our letter on the Griffin case (WV No. 360, 3 August) is a case in point. It begins with an ugly (yet ridiculous) race-baiting smear that we demonstrated a “dismissive and contemptuous attitude toward black oppression” by failing to reiterate the fact that Griffin is black. The article continues by quoting Joseph Seymour’s attack on us at the Chicago educational on 5 May for “one of the most objectively racist speeches I’ve heard by someone who claims to sympathize with us.” Strong stuff! But why not clinch the argument by quoting the offensive remarks themselves? We know why–because to do so would expose Seymour as a slanderer. What he found so “racist” was the elementary observation that just as economic desperation induces some oppressed plebian youth to volunteer for the military (what the reformists call the “economic draft”) , it leads others to become cops and scabs.

It is clear from Seymour’s remarks that you have a rather benign attitude toward the U.S. Marine Corps. Indeed you seem to view it as some kind of government-sponsored social service which enables black and minority youth to trade the misery of life in America’s ghettoes for a regular paycheck, fresh air and “three squares.” Small wonder then that you refer to the defeat inflicted on Reagan’s colonial gendarmes in Beirut as a “disaster” and that your first reaction was to call for saving the survivors.

Your pro-imperialist “neutrality” toward the American intervention in Lebanon is clearly indicated by Seymour when he contrasts it to a hypothetical future incursion in Nicaragua: “Of course, Nicaragua’s different [than Lebanon]. They go in, we want them to be defeated. Insofar as they have to take casualties, we want the Marines to take casualties.” But not in Beirut–there you didn’t want them to be defeated, and you explicitly didn’t want them to take casualties. Why not? Because, as Seymour explained in the same speech, the Marines were “no better and no worse” than any of the indigenous semi-colonial militias. (We note that you discreetly neglected to comment on this piece of anti-Leninist revisionism in your reply, despite the fact that we had explicitly challenged you on it in our letter.)

Lebanon and Northern Ireland

In earlier polemics we pointed to the parallel between Northern Ireland and Lebanon, i.e., that in both cases there is (or was) an imperialist military intervention into an inter-communal conflict. We suggested that the Spartacist League/Britain would deeply discredit itself in the eyes of every class-conscious worker were it to raise a call for “British Troops Out of Ireland, Now, Alive!”. In your reply to us on Corporal Griffin you claim that this is a “false analogy” for two reasons “To begin with, the Marines [in Lebanon] constituted a token military force, which, moreover, hid in their bunkers during most of the fighting.” Oh really? Here’s how you yourselves described the U.S. military intervention a few short weeks before the demolition of the barracks:

“...the U.S. is now committed to defending the Phalangist gangsters with an additional 2,000 troops drawn from the American fleet in the Indian Ocean, a total of 14,000 Marines both on shore and off and 12 warships standing off the coast and 100 warplanes...

“Behind the military escalation in Lebanon is U.S. imperialism’s global war drive against the Soviet Union...”

“The Pentagon has abandoned the pretense that U.S. forces fire only when fired upon. A few days ago U.S. warships shelled positions deep in Syrian-controlled territory in retaliation for anti-Phalange forces bombarding the defense ministry in Beirut. U.S. forces are now routinely providing artillery cover for the Lebanese army...”

“A year ago ... we wrote: ‘The U.S. forces in Lebanon are a beachhead for large-scale military intervention in the region–directly posing the danger of a nuclear World War III.’”
(WV No. 338, 23 September 1983)

Further on in the same article you approvingly quoted Democratic Congressman Clarence Long as noting that: “Any 9-year-old kid watching television can see our people in combat, but the President of the United States doesn’t see this as combat.” Well apparently in hindsight, neither does WV!

But quite apart from your current attempts to falsify the role and activity of the American military intervention in Lebanon, there is an important issue of principle involved here–i.e., that Trotskyist opposition to imperialist intervention in the semi-colonial world is unconditional. We don’t care who fired first, who was minding their own business, or who was hiding in their bunkers. We don’t care whether the imperialist forces constitute the state power (as in Northern Ireland) or merely act as auxiliaries to one side in the conflict (as in Lebanon). We want all the imperialists out, immediately, by any means necessary.

The second distinction which you make between the two situations is equally specious. You assert that unlike the Protestants in the six counties, “the Maronite-dominated Gemayel ‘government’ did not oppress the Lebanese Muslim population for the simple reason that it did not govern them.” But surely that was what all the fighting was about–to determine which of the warring communities would get to oppress the others. For that reason revolutionists could take no side in the conflict between the indigenous populations. But when any of these peoples is militarily engaged with an imperialist power–whether in Northern Ireland or Lebanon–we do have a side. And that is why the analogy is fundamentally sound.

You seem to have the peculiar notion that your call for the defeat of the Marines in Grenada somehow cancels out your flinch over Lebanon. It doesn’t. All it proves is that it was easy to be tough over Grenada. Reagan didn’t care what you said about that one–he won.

The Beirut "disaster” was a different story. It was the biggest single military defeat inflicted on the U.S. since the Tet offensive. It ultimately compelled the U.S. to pull out of Lebanon and was thus an important setback to American plans to make Beirut a staging area for anti-Soviet military moves in the Near East. Reagan didn’t like that. So just to be on the safe side, just to make it clear that you weren’t any more pleased by this military reversal than the Democrats, you adopted their program for the Marines in Lebanon. Reagan’s deployment is “stupid” and “senseless” you said–let’s get them out now before more are killed. Tip O’Neill was saying the same thing. Eventually even Reagan came to see that this advice was in fact in the best interests of American imperialism. So he carried out your demand–he got the “Marines Out of Lebanon, Alive!” Congratulations.

You can continue to pretend that your flinch over the barracks bombing was motivated by Bolshevik intransigence. You can probably even convince some of your more impressionable new recruits that anything else would have been “bloodthirsty.” (Although how will you explain the headline on the front page of WV No. 207, 26 May 1978, on the slaughter of whites in Zaire: “Colonialists: Live Like Pigs–Die Like Pigs!”?) Serious political people who carefully examine the question will draw their own conclusions.

Over the past year, under minimal pressure, the leadership of the Spartacist League has consistently demonstrated a lack of backbone. The cowardly flinch in defense of the Marines in Lebanon was prefigured by the failure to uphold the unconditional defense of Soviet airspace during the furor over the downing of KAL 007. Last July, at the time of the Democratic Party convention in San Francisco, you once again showed your yellow stripe when you refused to participate in a demonstration against the sinister Moral Majority. Indeed, you even had the temerity to slander us for “setting [you] up” by marching (under our own name) in that demonstration. Instead of protesting Jerry Falwell, or, as we had proposed, attempting to initiate a united-front demonstration against a planned KKK provocation, you flaunted your “peaceful, legal” appetites with an obsequious (and ludicrous) offer of defense guards to protect Fritz Mondale et. al. from a hallucinatory “threat” of attack by Reagan, Dianne Feinstein and the fascists. In WV No. 361 you take this new orientation to the Democrats one step further when you repudiate the fundamental Marxist position that from the point of view of the proletariat there is “not a dime’s worth of difference” between the twin parties of U.S. imperialism. We wonder what’s next.

Communist greetings,
External Tendency of the iSt

P.S. We just noticed the box on the July 28th El Salvador demonstration in Cleveland (WV No. 362, 14 September). Once you start lying, it is so hard to stop. You suggest that the reason we marched with you in Cleveland “must be” because we didn’t see your “signs defending victims of racist military ‘justice’ from Captain Dreyfus to Corporal Griffin.” This is willfully dishonest. Our letter on Corporal Griffin, which you printed only two issues earlier, clearly stated our position, i.e. that “the vindictive punishment of this man by the imperialist military is an outrage.” We can only presume therefore that this latest calumny is intended to make cynics of those who are under discipline to defend it.